Labor’s task – unite behind Shorten, and do it quickly

October 13, 2013

It was supposed to be an exercise in participatory democracy. It was supposed to show the country that the Australian Labor Party was open and inclusive when it came to deciding who its leaders would be. Most of all, it was supposed to be a signal that Labor had moved beyond the kind of factional manoeuvring that had turfed out two sitting Prime Ministers.

It captivated news cycles, drawing attention away from the new Abbott government as pundits tried to find the flaw in the system, and waited with bated breath for attack-type electioneering that never materialised. The campaign between Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese was civil to the point of being almost boring. The two men praised each other’s record in Parliament, and refused to be drawn when invited to criticise. If anything, they were in danger of being seen as too similar.

The procedure was simple – the candidate who achieved an overall majority of votes would be elected leader. That majority was composed of 50% of Federal Caucus, and 50% of rank-and-file membership votes. In theory, this would achieve the most representative result, and silence those critics who insisted that Labor was entirely at the mercy of its factions, ignoring the membership.

There was an inherent problem in the procedure, however. If the caucus and the membership voted different ways, and the Caucus vote was ultimately the deciding factor, the result could easily be seen as a sign that nothing had really changed. For the procedure to be seen as truly ‘representative’ and free of factional politicking, the new leader needed to be elected via the rank-and-file vote. It’s all in the perception.

Unfortunately for Labor, the new leader – Bill Shorten – was elected on the Caucus vote. His numbers broke down this way:

Caucus vote: 63.9% (55 of 86)
Rank-and-file vote: 40% (12,196 of 30,426)
Overall vote: 52.2%

It’s absolutely clear that Shorten did not have the confidence of the rank-and-file – and with the new procedure effectively weighting the result such that one Caucus vote is roughly equivalent to 350 membership votes, it’s fair to say that this system does not provide a clear picture of the party’s wishes. Nor is it necessarily truly representative. Unless the rank-and-file overwhelmingly votes against the Caucus, their preferred candidate has little chance of gaining the leadership. More likely, factions within the Caucus will continue to exert control.

These flaws leave Labor entirely vulnerable to attack from the Coalition government, on grounds with which the latter are entirely comfortable. The situation is worsened by the election of Bill Shorten, who is perhaps irrevocably tainted by his past actions. His ties to the unions are, perhaps, the least of the problem. Labor has always drawn much of its strength from the union movement. His role as the prime mover in removing first Kevin Rudd, then Julia Gillard, from their positions as Prime Minister, however, is far more damaging to Labor in Opposition.

Bill Shorten, the new Opposition Leader

Bill Shorten, the new Opposition Leader

The attack ads and speeches write themselves. Labor has handed the Coalition a perfect way to avoid scrutiny. Take the asylum seeker issue, for example. Let’s say Shorten holds a press conference criticising the government over its high-handed attitude towards Indonesian sovereignty. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison need not answer any charge Shorten might bring – he has a script available to him to deflect attention onto the ‘ongoing disunity’ within Labor.

It’s already happening. Within minutes of the announcement, Jamie Briggs fronted the media. As expected, he called on Shorten to vote to repeal carbon pricing – but on the heels of that came the first test of the new script, courtesy of the media. What did Briggs think of the fact that the Caucus and the rank-and-file had voted differently? Briggs obligingly picked up his cue, and the rest was entirely predictable.

Of course, none of this speaks to Shorten’s ability to lead Labor. There’s no reason to believe he will be anything but a good leader – and, however flawed the new system, he was properly elected. The problem is entirely in the perception, and manipulating perceptions is a key strength of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his front bench. Shorten is vulnerable, and there’s every reason to think Abbott will exploit both his history and the leadership ballot result. Had Albanese been elected, there would be no such opportunity for the Coalition, but there is little point in wasting time on counter-factuals.

In the coming days, Albanese’s action will go far towards countering any message of disunity. He’s seen as perhaps the most loyal of Labor’s front bench, putting the party first and wearing that loyalty on his sleeve. There’s no doubt he will attract a great deal of media scrutiny, looking for any sign that his support for Shorten is anything but unconditional – and it’s extremely unlikely they’ll find one.

The heavy lifting cannot be purely left to Albanese, however. One of Labor’s major failings, both in government and during the election campaign, was its inability to clearly communicate its message. It’s true that the media had largely written the narrative, often without even speaking with Labor – or had discounted the party entirely. It’s also true that the Coalition embraces the tactic of ‘repeat something often enough and others will come to believe it’. Nonetheless, Labor did not – and perhaps could not – cut through, and the election result was partly of its own making.

Now, in Opposition, the party has an opportunity to rehabilitate its image – but it must be a party-wide effort. With Shorten as leader, an uphill battle has become that much harder. Labor needs to do everything possible to bury Shorten’s history – not deny it, not attempt to explain it away, but to drown it out with a show of unity that is not undermined by disgruntled factional members or damaged by strategic leaks. (And no, this doesn’t mean Kevin Rudd. People really need to get over it.)

Above all, Labor needs to do it quickly. It can’t afford to let the government gain any momentum with a disunity message – it has to take the fight right up to the coalface of policy, and show itself entirely unmoved by the insistence that it has no choice but to fall into line with the Coalition’s platform. If the party falls in behind Shorten and sticks to its stated principles, it can become an extremely effective Opposition.

If it doesn’t, it will only have itself to blame.

Win-win for Rudd

February 23, 2012

As expected, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has called a leadership ballot for Monday, citing a need to settle the issue ‘once and for all’. Rudd is still to declare whether he will contest that ballot, although it’s likely.

With that in mind, let’s examine some scenarios.

Scenario 1: Rudd loses with the support of more than a third of the caucus.

Result: Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem for Gillard. To have the support of two-thirds of the caucus should be conclusive. In fact, when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott won his challenge against Malcolm Turnbull by only one vote, he spun the narrowest of victories as indicative of party unity.

There is a problem, though. Gillard’s supporters are out there talking down Rudd’s support as vanishingly small, well short of having enough numbers to even mount a challenge under party rules. If they are proved wrong, it raises the question of whether Rudd is a viable alternative to Gillard – perhaps not today, but soon. The Keating model. And once the question is raised, Rudd becomes a focus for discontent with Gillard.

Gillard tried to stave that off in her speech today by effectively challenging Rudd to a dare. She announced that if she lost – adding quickly that she did not expect that to happen – she would go to the back bench and promise never to challenge again, and called on Rudd to make a similar undertaking. Of course, that’s nonsensical. Any such undertaking isn’t worth the bytes it’s recorded on (oh dear, the old print metaphors really are the best). There are any number of get-out clauses, from the tried-and-true ‘I know I promised but people are begging me’ to the weak but difficult to refute ‘that was then, the world has changed’.

So she’s left with Rudd on the back bench as a credible alternative who’s free to speak his mind, not bound by the usual constraints on Ministers.

Scenario 2: Rudd loses comprehensively.

Result: This should spell the end of Rudd’s leadership ambitions. But again, he could employ the Keating model. This time, though, he keeps his head down. He publicly supports the government when called on to specifically do so, but looks pained about it. He reminds the media at every turn that he is a back bencher, and refers them to appropriate Ministers or to Gillard herself.

And, as in the previous scenario, he becomes a focus for discontent among back benchers. A leader ignores the possibility of a back bench revolt at their peril – after all, there are more of them than the Cabinet, many with personal axes to grind on behalf of their individual electorates.

Both of these scenarios presume that the Coalition wins the next election. On the strength of polling trends, this seems likely. Rudd losing a challenge now and going to the back bench sets him up as someone to lead Labor out of the electoral wilderness. He has a proven track record in winning elections – and not via the skin of his teeth, either.

Scenario 3: Rudd wins.

It’s an outside chance, at best. Although Centrebet reports that Rudd’s odds are shortening (no link provided, in the interests of avoiding spam trackbacks, but it’s easy enough to find), enough Labor figures have already declared support for Gillard to make it unlikely that he could snatch victory. But let’s look at it anyway – just for fun.

Obviously, there would be a huge sense of personal achievement for Rudd, not to mention a fair amount of ‘best served cold’ satisfaction. It might also bring disaffected, left-leaning voters back to the party – those who objected to the way Gillard became Prime Minister in the first place, or who reject her policy stances (which can be described as Centre Right at best). If Rudd bullies through his stated aims on party reform, constraining the power of the factions and unions, it removes a key plank from Abbott’s anti-Labor platform. And he just might squeak an election victory, if enough voters forgive him for the political manoeuvring he undertook to get back the top job.

Even if he doesn’t win the next election, he can argue to keep the leader’s job in Opposition, on the grounds that he needs time to consolidate reforms.

An outside chance, yes – but it has to be one he’s considered.

Scenario 4: Rudd does not challenge.

This is by far the least likely scenario. All the rhetoric suggests Rudd is positioning himself to contest the leadership on Monday – and possibly that he expects to lose, setting up the groundwork for a later challenge (at least, according to Labor strategist and Rudd backer Bruce Hawker). In the interests of completeness, though …

It’s a very, very dangerous strategy. Rudd risks looking like a coward, talking big about the need for good leadership and touting his own credentials, then not following through. He also risks having his supporters – both public and Parliamentary – turn on him.

On the other hand, if he’s clever enough, he can spin it. His speeches weren’t a job application – he was defending himself, and warning people of the need to work hard to (a) defeat Abbott and (b) come through the looming Eurozone financial crisis. It would take some brilliant speechifying – and while he’s capable of it, I think it’s too great a risk.

So there you have it.

But no matter what scenario ends up being played out, Rudd’s already won. He’s drawn out into the spotlight the venom with which Gillard’s supporters regard him. Steve Gibbons called him a ‘psychopath’. Simon Crean said he was a ‘prima donna’. Nicola Roxon advised us to get over the idea that he’s a ‘messiah’. And from Treasurer Wayne Swan (also Treasurer under Rudd) came an extraordinarily petulant spray that his media advisors clearly never saw until it was too late.

This morning, Rudd spoke about the damaging nature of those comments, how they showed disunity and helped only the Coalition. He urged those speaking out on his behalf not to be drawn into the same kind of personal comments, confined his remarks to policy decisions, and talked himself up rather than criticise of Gillard herself.

By contrast, Gillard – already under fire for not chastising her Cabinet and supporting Rudd as Foreign Minister – engaged in similar personal attacks this morning. She accused him of everything from deliberately sabotaging the 2010 election campaign to single-handedly paralysing the government through his ‘chaotic work patterns’ to responsibility for her government’s inability to communicate its agenda (something she’s previously ascribed solely to Abbott).

Rudd also gave credit to Gillard’s government for pushing through reforms – with the reminder that these were begun by his own government. Gillard characterised the Rudd government as entirely ineffectual, and claimed solely for herself those same reforms.

The language was clear. The contrast was clear. And yes, you can say that Rudd was talking in private, leaking to the media, undermining Gillard privately. Maybe he was. Politicians do that. Remember Gillard arguing against Rudd’s proposed pension increases? Remember the leaks against Rudd? And still, no one has yet come out and categorically stated that they were briefed in a de-stabilising campaign by Rudd, or named any followers who have allegedly done so.

Rudd’s not a white knight, by any means. He’s a slick political operator, as is Gillard. You only have to look at how they’re handling this issue. It’s a textbook in politics.

But Rudd’s the clear victor in one sense. He exposed the vicious side of Gillard’s team. He blindsided her by resigning from Cabinet without warning. He’s reminded people of why he became Labor leader, and why the Australian public elected him the first place.

And now he’s effectively barricaded against the media for around 24 hours. It does give Gillard a clear field – but it also means that the media will zero in on her wherever she goes. She already displayed her temper once this morning at a particularly insistent journalist.

You can bet the pressure won’t let up until Monday morning. And in the meantime, Rudd can monitor, strategise and assess the situation.

He may not have the numbers, but so far, he’s ahead on points.

Marriage equality bills to hit Parliament today

February 13, 2012

Today ALP backbencher Stephen Jones will introduce a bill into the House of Representatives calling for marriage equality. Greens MP Adam Bandt and Independent Andrew Wilkie will introduce a similar co-sponsored bill, containing a specific provision that will exempt religious ministers from solemnising marriages between a same-sex couple.

I’d like to be optimistic, even enthusiastic, about this. But I’m afraid I really, really can’t.

Because unless Opposition Leader Tony Abbott loosens his stranglehold on the Coalition’s consciences, the bills will fail.

We’ve already seen what happens when Bandt or Wilkie tries to introduce ‘controversial’ legislation. The major parties fall into lockstep against them. Granted, the ALP passed the resolution at its last conference to make marriage equality a matter of conscience, so perhaps there might be a few more bums on seats sitting with the two minority MPs this time around. But there are enough Labor members determinedly opposed to same-sex marriage to ensure the bills suffer a resounding defeat.

Jones’ bill may fare more kindly. After all, he’s a Labor man, and even those who won’t support Bandt and Wilkie on principle might vote for one of their own. Again, though, the bill runs up against the Coalition’s refusal to allow its members a conscience vote.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has already signalled her intention to introduce a marriage equality bill later in the year. This is as clear a signal as she could send that she expects today’s bills to fail – and probably her own as well. At this point, the strategy appears to be one of simply flooding the Parliament with similar bills in the hope that it will wear down MPs’ resolve – and that in the end, they might vote for it just to get the issue out of the way.

That this strategy should even have to be considered, let alone employed, is shameful. It’s a matter of civil rights – human rights – that are denied to Australian citizens. Worse, it’s a matter of a privileged majority not wanting to have that privilege ‘sullied’ by having to share it.

Now, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the numbers will be there. Maybe some Coalition members will defy Abbott’s decree and cross the floor to support marriage equality – or at least inform him privately that they intend to do so, at which point I predict a swift reversal of the ‘no conscience vote’ stance. Maybe the rest of the ALP will realise that clinging to privilege and discrimination flies in the face of everything that party supposedly stands for, and support a bill.

It’s possible.

It’s also possible politicians will stop lying in Parliament, abandon mindless party loyalty in favour of the good of the people, and remember that they are our servants, not our masters.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Tell her she’s dreaming.

Liveblog – the marriage equality debate.

December 3, 2011

Morning, folks. Kicking off the #marriageequality debate soon, though a conscience vote looks to be a foregone conclusion. #alpnc

8.45am And, we’re off. First up, delegates will pass a motion recognising today as International Day of People with Disability. #alpnc

This is a suspension of standing orders, so the agenda is interrupted. Have to wonder about this move, coming right before the #marriageequality debate. Is this designed to be a pointed reminder that it’s ‘less important’, a ‘second-tier’ issue?

8.54am If this is an attempt to pull the focus off #marriageequality, it’s a pretty poor one. #alpnc

8.57am Gillard makes the point that PMs don’t usually move motions at #alpnc. Underscores this as a political move. Pretty dirty politics.

I receive a tweet from @AustralianLabor telling me that ‘We are celebrating International Day of People with Disability and the great reform that Labor is working to implement #NDIS'(National Disability Insurance Scheme) … presumably in response to my tweets about this motion possibly being a cynical move … a distraction to take the focus off #marriageequality and relegate the debate to a second-order issue.

9.01am Over-egging the pudding a bit here. Disability a worthy cause, but this is gilding the lily, eating into #marriageequality time. #alpnc

9.02am Listen closely to the ‘equality and dignity’ rhetoric in this motion. Now remember that when #marriageequality comes up. #alpnc

9.12am Looks like the #marriageequality debate will now start at 9.30am. Meanwhile, Labor pulling out all the stops to position themselves as compassionate champions of equality with the NDIS.

Unsurprisingly, the motion passes unanimously.

9.20am After the NDIS motion, Macklin acknowledges traditional owners of the land. Whoops, probably should have happened earlier. #alpnc

9.21am Macklin banging the ‘compassion’ drum again. Really setting themselves up as champions of fairness here. #alpnc

9.24 Macklin: ‘We are a party that hears the voices of the voiceless’. Then stresses this is about the ‘most’ disadvantaged people. #alpnc

There are some deeply cynical political moves here. Labor paints itself as ‘fair’, concerned with ‘equality’ and ‘dignity’ – but makes sure that everyone knows there is a hierarchy of disadvantage. Undoubtedly, those calling for a conscience vote or arguing against same-sex marriage will use this same argument – which, paraphrased, boils down to ‘we’ve done heaps for you, be thankful, others are in greater need’.

Debate on the proposed conscience vote will *precede* Wong and Barr’s motion to amend the party’s policy. Very sneaky move, there.

9.30am @AustralianLabor hastens to reassure me that a Welcome to Country ceremony was held yesterday.

9.31am And now amendments relating to indigenous issues. #alpnc

9.37am Still on indigenous issues. Big slaps aimed at the Victorian government for making acknowledgment of traditional ownership ‘optional’ – but a resounding silence on the Northern Territory intervention.

9.39 am It just gets more cynical. If the Left doesn’t cave in to the Right and support a conscience vote, it will fail. The Right has already said they won’t support a formal change to policy. What are we left with? Status quo?

.46am Here we go … Gillard’s conscience vote up for discussion now. #alpnc

9.47am Gillard to speak first, arguing for a conscience vote on #marriageequality. Yet she’s not actually HERE. #alpnc

Gillard out of the room, so debate is suspended ENTIRELY. Shame. #alpnc #marriageequality

9.49am Oh wait, there she is. Not a good look. #alpnc

Gillard’s speech on #marriageequality starts with a ‘few words’ on jobs, growth and fairness. #alpnc

9.51am And from jobs, the PM moves to education. Which apparently also wants to get married. #alpnc #marriageequality

9.52am Jobs, growth, fairness, health care, disabilities. Aaaand #marriageequality? #alpnc

Gillard stresses that this debate must be had in a climate of respect. #alpnc #marriageequality

Of course, she did this after making sure everyone was reminded of *her* view on the subject.

9.54am Gillard: this is a ‘deeply personal’ debate; she stresses the need for respect for religion. #alpnc #marriageequality

9.55am Gillard now falsely claims that marriage was always a question of conscience. Doesn’t mention 2004. #alpnc #marriageequality

9.56am Gillard: ‘Whatever we determine to do with our platform … we should accord the views of all respect.’ #alpnc #marriageequality

Note that Gillard’s talk of ‘respect’ leaned heavily on the idea that religion should be respected *more*. #alpnc #marriageequality

9.57am Notice that Gillard didn’t actually address the ISSUE at all. Just the need for a conscience vote. #alpnc #marriageequality

9.58am Smith, like Gillard, doesn’t address the issue. And Smith fails to mention the 2004 changes. #alpnc #marriageequality

Smith says a conscience vote should depend on whether there’s a ‘deeply held personal belief’. So, we’ll see one on uranium then?

10am Shorter Gillard/Smith: we should respect discrimination and bigotry. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.01am Andrew Barr now up to speak on a direct platform change. HUGE applause and cheering. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.02am Barr, at least, speaks to the issue. #alpnc #marriageequality.

10.03am Impressed that Barr reminded delegates that this issue affects more than just ‘gay people’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Barr: ‘I can see no good reason for denying marriage to same-sex couples’.

10.0am Barr is choking up. ‘We’re not nameless and faceless people … we’re members of the community like everyone else’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.06am Barr reminds delegates that this issue is ‘intensely felt’ by those who cannot marry. #alpnc #marriageequality

Standing ovation and cheers for Barr. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.09am Wong: if people were denied marriage on the basis of race, ‘there is not a person in this room that would countenance it!’ #alpnc

Huge applause and cheers. Wong is totally fired up.

10.11am Wong: ‘Do not ask us any longer to accept our relations being treated as less worthy … there is nothing to fear from equality’. #alpnc

10.12am Someone yelling from the audience ‘it’s against natural law’ (Joe de Bruyn?). Cries of ‘Shame!’ from the audience. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.13am Another standing ovation as Wong wraps up. #alpnc #marriageequality.

10.14am Big hug for Penny Wong from Tanya Plibersek. But now Joe de Bruyn is up to support conscience vote. #marriageequality #alpnc

10.15am de Bruyn: this should be decided with our heads, not our emotions. Scornful laughter from the delegates. #alpnc #marriageequality

de Bruyn: Heterosexual marriage has been that way ‘since the dawn of humanity’. More laughter. #alpnc #marriageequality

de Bruyn: Same-sex marriage cannot, of itself, produce children. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.16am de Bruyn, of course, doesn’t mention that infertile heterosexual couples are allowed to marry. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.17am de Bruyn just undermines his ‘marriage is historical’ argument by referencing the 2004 amendments. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.18am de Bruyn: ‘Are we going to turn our back today on something we’ve said is a core value?’ Delegates roar: YES! #alpc #marriageequality

10.19am de Bruyn references the ACL petition, which he falsely claims is ‘over 100,000 signatures’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.20am de Bruyn trying to claim that the petition for #marriageequality is somehow sleazy, because many signatories didn’t give their electorates.

After his rhetorical call-and-answer fails, de Bruyn moves on to warning that people will lose seats over it.

10.21am de Bruyn lying through his teeth about petitions and community support for #marriageequality. #alpnc

10.25am Faulkner: ‘Human rights can never be at the mercy of individual opinions or individual prejudices’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Faulkner: ‘It is not for governments to *grant* human rights, but to recognise and protect them’. Huge applause. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.28am Faulkner: we don’t have a conscience vote on going to war. Pacifists can’t vote with their consciences. #alpnc #marriageequality

Faulkner: We compelled young men to go to war through conscription – no conscience vote then. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.29am Faulkner: ‘A conscience vote on human rights is not conscionable’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.30am Standing ovation for Faulkner, too. Now Deborah O’Neill up to speak for a conscience vote. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.31am O’Neill supports a conscience vote. Asks for respect from those who disagree with her. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.33am O’Neill trying to run the difficult line that Labor’s ‘done enough’, and marriage is ‘not a rights issue’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.36am O’Neill: ‘changing the platform will not remove the terror of homophobia’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.37am Michelle Lancy up now to support Barr-Wong. ‘There are 2 opposing views here today, love and hate’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Lancy nearly crying: ‘I do this for the children whose beds I’ve sat at when they’ve attempted suicide’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Lancy: ‘I’m bringing my Christianity and my humanity in here today’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Standing ovation for Lancy. Now Mark Arbib. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.41am Mark Arbib wants to support both amendments. Huh?? #alpnc #marriageequality

10.42am Arbib asks how could he tell a potentially gay daughter she can’t get married? #alpnc #marriageequality

10.44am Arbib says the platform must change, but the only way it will work today is via conscience vote. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.44am *None* of the pro-conscience vote speakers admits that the 2004 ‘man & woman’ amendment was NOT a conscience vote. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.45am Anthony Albanese up! #alpnc #marriageequality

10.49am After an Adobe AIR malfunction …

Albo reminds Labor of its history on fighting HIV, passing laws against discrimination; calls on the party to keep it up. #alpnc

10.50am Delegate Polly up, very little applause. Claims she was ‘invited not to turn up’. #alpnc #marriageeqaulity

Polly says she respects Wong – but not enough to let her marry, apparently. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.51am Polly with the ‘some of my best friends are gay’ argument. (facepalm) #alpnc #marriageeqaulity

Polly: ‘Marriage is the heart of our community … it’s our way of life’. Possibly also Mabo and the vibe? #alpnc #marriageeqaulity

10.52am Polly: ‘Marriage is the basis of our social fabric’ – which is funny, given our PM is ‘living in sin’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.53am Polly would like to point out that only heterosexuals can use the word ‘marriage’. Teh Gayz can have ‘unions’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Polly says we should be allowed to have different views – but only on some issues, it seems. #alpnc #marriagequality

10.54am Now Tanya Plibersek: ‘the time for this great change has come’.

10.56am Plibersek: We can focus on jobs and growth and fairness at the same time. We don’t have to choose. #alpnc #marriageequality

Plibersek: ‘I’m also here representing my straight constituents’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.57am Plibersek says she’s here for the teenagers who are being told their love is ‘not right’. #alpnc #marriageequality

10.59am Plibersek: It’s not good enough to say to one group of people, ‘you’re almost equal’. #alpnc #marriageequality

Plibersek: ‘Almost equal is not good enough’. I may cry. #alpnc #marriageequality

11.00am No further speakers. Time for the votes. Conscience vote first, and a count is called for. #alpnc #marriageequality

11.04am I wonder if the #alpnc will publish a list of who voted which way on this? #marriageequality

11.07am Albo’s down on the stage watching the count. #alpnc #marriageequality

The tension is palpable – both in the room and on Twitter.

11.09am Call for delegates opposed to the conscience vote to raise their cards. Applause and cheers. #alpnc #marriageequality

So hard to gauge the voting, but looks to be very close. #alpnc #marriageequality

11.13am 208 for the conscience vote, 184 against. Conscience vote is carried. #alpnc #marriageequality

I am apparently over the daily limit for sending tweets. This cannot be happening right now.

11.15am Barr-Wong amendment passes on the voices.

11.20am Well, since Twitter’s cut me off, I’ll wind up the liveblog here. Labor’s in an interesting situation now … marriage equality is now officially included in their party platform, but any vote on the issue must be one of conscience. It’s likely such a vote would fail, given the Coalition’s declaration that they will vote en bloc to oppose such a change to the Marriage Act.

Nonetheless … how long, I wonder, before we see another private members’ bill from the Greens? Or even better, a private members’ bill co-sponsored by Wong, Albanese and Bandt?

The carbon price debate: a little light relief

September 14, 2011

The debate on the government’s Clean Energy Bills package (the so-called ‘carbon tax’) is in full swing. We’re two and a half hours into what’s promised to be a 35 hour debate – and we can already identify some recurring themes. Let’s take a look.

First up, we have Forward to the future! This government arguments boils down to: ‘first a trading scheme, then flying cars!’ Well, not exactly – but it’s a relentlessly utopian view. Here the emissions trading scheme is held to be the key to all forms of future energy innovation – which then, apparently, leads to Australia entering a new Golden Age of Wonder. Presumably with a Kitchen of the Future!

To counter that, we have Back to the Stone Age. This one relies entirely on the idea that we’re all basically addicted to electricity, and our lives will fall apart when the trading scheme kicks in. We won’t be able to turn on our air conditioners! We will freeze in winter because we can’t use our heaters! Worst of all – we might have to ration our television viewing!

The horror.

Next up, More capitalist than thou. This is one of my personal favourites. We should depend on the market! The market will save us from dangerous climate change! The market will stop the ice from melting! Bow down to the god of the market! A tried-and-true conservative argument.

Except it isn’t the Coalition saying this – it’s the government.

(Oddly, I couldn’t find a humorous video for this one.)

Not to be outdone, the Coalition retaliate with Greens under the bed. The government is at the mercy of those Socialist Luddite Extreme Greens, who want to take away our freedom and spit on our flag! Comrade Brown is the only one who wants this ‘carbon tax’, and he’s blackmailing the government to get it! Run for your lives! We must protect Our Way of Life and Our Right to Pollute!

And just in case all that’s a bit too esoteric, there are the old standbys.

Liar, liar, pants on fire! Everyone, sing along with me now: Gillard lied to us! She said there wouldn’t be a carbon tax and now she’s got one! Never mind that these bills are not a bloody carbon tax (as some of us have been screaming for months, and Malcolm Farr finally recognised this morning.)

And finally, But all the cool kids are doing it. California’s doing it! Canada’s doing it! South Korea says it’s going to do it! If we don’t do it, we’ll be left behind! We’ll be … we’ll be … carbon dorks. Muuuuum …

All of which is by way of saying that there are no new arguments in this debate. We’ve heard them all before – ad nauseam. So here’s my proposal. How about the Coalition simply tables its leaked ‘confidential’ talking points, the government tables a few Gillard’s press releases, and we all just get on with it?

Department of dirty tricks

August 24, 2011

In Australian politics, there’s a little thing called pairing. Until this Parliament, it was confined to the Senate, but as part of negotiations to form minority government, all parties agreed to extend that arrangement to the House of Representatives. It was all very decent, and designed to ensure that government could function. At the time, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stated he would ‘honour the agreement’, that he ‘made the agreement in good faith and will keep to the agreement’.

It’s a shame, really, that the agreement was threatened on the opening day of the 43rd Parliament. Two government ministers – Regional and Arts Minister Simon Crean and Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor – were refused pairs. In O’Connor’s case, that would have prevented him from attending the National Police Remembrance Day services, a grave insult to law enforcement.

At the eleventh hour, after considerable pressure from media, the public and (reportedly) their own back bench, the Opposition relented and granted the pairs. Since that time, pairs have been routinely granted. In fact, it looked like the whole incident might simply have been a case of the Opposition testing the waters.

But wait.

Earlier this week Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced that he would no longer grant the government a ‘pair’ under any circumstances during the upcoming debate over carbon price legislation. His objective was clear: to force the government to either delay the debate or to renege on its responsibilities to the country. No more appearances at the Press Club. No opening ceremonies for the NBN. No overseas trips to G20 conferences. In other words, to make government unworkable.

Ultimately, of course, Abbott’s aim is to have the government throw up its hands and consign the legislation to the ‘too hard’ basket. But perhaps it’s simply sabre-rattling, another shot across the bow like last year.

This time, though, the Opposition has already made good on its threat – and it’s worth nothing that this happened before any debate on carbon price legislation even started.

Crean was a victim again. He was granted a pair so that he and Malcolm Turnbull could attend the funeral of artist Margaret Olley AC, who died last month. The arrangement was made some time ago, in writing. Today the Opposition withdrew from that agreement.

It was a direct insult to Olley’s family, and to her memorial. As Leader of the House Anthony Albanese commented, ‘It was appropriate that the Australian government be represented … [and there is] no one more important than the Arts Minister to do so’. Not that this apparently mattered to the Opposition.

As if that wasn’t enough, Abbott also withdrew a previously granted pair from the Prime Minister. She was scheduled to meet today with the visiting President of the Seychelles. Protocol for these matters demanded her attendance, and as a result she had no choice but to be absent from the chamber and missed a vote.

And about that vote …

In recent days Member for Dobell Craig Thomson has come under fire from the Opposition over a convoluted series of events involving a mobile phone, one (or possibly more) escort agencies, a defamation suit and a legal defence fund. Basically, the accusations boil down to this: that Thomson, while working for the Health Services Union, misused his corporate credit card to splurge on sex workers, sued Fairfax newspapers for defamation about it and ran up such a huge legal bill that he needed the Labor Party to bail him out just so that he could avoid bankruptcy and stay in Parliament.

Never mind that Thomson is not charged with any offence. Never mind that the HSU isn’t looking to recover funds. Never mind, in fact, that Thomson has always claimed that others had access to both the credit card and the mobile phone in question. The Opposition think they smell blood in the water, and want Thomson gone so they can force a by-election.

Much of the pressure has come under the umbrella of Parliamentary privilege, which means that Thomson can’t stop the Opposition from stating as fact what amounts to little more than conjecture. Neither can the Prime Minister prevent the now-constant insinuations that she knew what was going on and may even have colluded in some wrongdoing. But that’s not all – Senator George Brandis, apparently acting in his capacity as Shadow Attorney-General, wrote to the New South Wales police urging them to open an investigation. He seemed disgruntled by the news that the Australian Federal Police had already said there was no grounds for such an inquiry.

Yesterday the NSW police said they’d assess whether it was worth opening an investigation. This is pretty much standard procedure when they receive a complaint. That didn’t stop Abbott claiming in Parliament that Thomson was ‘under investigation’, of course. Nor did it stop Leader of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne from attempting to force Thomson to front Parliament and ‘explain himself’.

That was the vote that Gillard missed. Fortunately for the government, the Coalition failed to get an absolute majority of 76 votes, which is required for such procedural motions. Nonetheless, Pyne claimed a moral victory because more people had voted for the motion than against it.

(Sound familiar? Remember Abbott’s ‘moral victory’ at the 2010 election, otherwise known as ‘we got more seats than you’?)

It was an exercise in blatant hypocrisy. Under the Howard government, the Coalition repeatedly refused to force MPs and Senators whose behaviour was in question to explain themselves to Parliament. Famously, this included former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who was saved from having to answer questions from all comers about his knowledge of the Australian Wheat Board Scandal.

Here are a couple of choice quotes:

Prime Minister John Howard, 2007: ‘The appropriate thing for me to do is to let the police investigation run its course’.

Senator George Brandis, 2007: ‘We’re entitled to the presumption of innocence.’

It seems that presumption doesn’t extend to a Labor Parliamentarian, however. Thomson has already been pressured to resign as Chair of the Economics Committee (although he is still a member), and the calls for him to resign from Parliament altogether are becoming increasingly shrill.

Meanwhile, Senator Mary Jo Fisher, currently the only Parliamentarian who is charged with a criminal offence, absented herself from her position as Chair of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Communications, but retains it. That position earns her $12,000 per year.

She, however, has the full support of not just her party, but all sides of government:

Tony Abbott – ‘The party is right behind her and supporting her in this tough time.’

Senator Nick Xenophon – ‘The presumption of innocence is paramount.’

Anthony Albanese – ‘She’s entitled to that presumption of innocence.’

Craig Thomson, apparently, is not – at least according to the Coalition.

Really, it’s all about overthrowing the Labor government by any means necessary. If that means offering insult to visiting dignitaries or families of Australians, so be it. If it means hiding behind Parliamentary privilege in order to smear a man charged with no crime, that’s okay too. (But not, mind you, if it’s a case where the Coalition might lose any of its own Parliamentary influence.) The Department of Dirty Tricks is working overtime – and the tactics just get more and more questionable.

The Opposition have tried to excuse themselves at every turn, but the reality is that they have reneged on an agreement they signed in 2010, abused Parliamentary privilege and attempted to interfere with the work of the judiciary. Then there are the constant accusations of corruption in Treasury and the Solicitor-General’s Department.

Albanese commented today that Abbott appeared to think that the Lodge was his birthright.

It’s hard to disagree with that suggestion. And more and more, it seems that the Opposition isn’t going to let a little thing like democratic process get in the way of helping Abbott achieve his ambition.

Honesty, thy name is Kevin

April 5, 2011

Integrity in major party politics may not be dead.

ABC1’s Q and A program last night featured the Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. There were a few others on the panel, but for the most part, the focus was all on the former Prime Minister. (In retrospect, the producers must have wondered if they slipped up by not making it a single guest show.)

Inevitably, the question was asked – did Rudd regret his decision to delay putting the ETS legislation to Parliament for a third time?

Now, we’re all comfortable with the way Q and A operates. We get a few questions that seem to be drafted by party strategists, the odd incoherent rant and a few intelligent enquiries that are inevitably sidestepped and spun into an opportunity to deliver a political message.

That’s not what we got last night. Rudd looked up at the questioner and said simply, ‘I think my judgment then was wrong.’

La Trobe University politics lecturer Robert Manne, sitting next to Rudd, commented idly, ‘It’s very rare in Australian politics for that to happen’.


Contrast Gillard on the carbon price announcement – the so-called ‘broken promise’, the alleged ‘lie’. Even after she admitted that yes, she had changed her mind, she made a point of stressing that it was because of ‘changed circumstances’ (the minority government). She wasn’t ‘wrong’ to have ruled out a carbon tax during the election campaign; it was all about what had happened to her.

Contrast Abbott on paid parental leave or carbon pricing. He eventually said he’d changed his mind – and vigorously defended his right to do so.

Rudd, last night, copped it on the chin. He told us he’d been assailed from all sides by his own party, each pushing their own point. Some wanted the ETS permanently shelved. Some wanted to push aside, despite the hostile Senate. Rudd looked for the middle ground, hoping that he could gamble on the Senate changing in the next election. By delaying the ETS, he thought he’d found it.

It sounded like it was shaping up as typical spin. They made me do it, I didn’t want to, but they made me! Indeed, Julie Bishop – who seemed completely unable to stop herself from repeatedly interrupting with remarks that clearly she thought were clever, but which only showed her to be doing a fine job playing the role of Party animal – said that several times. Rudd wasn’t having any of that, however.

‘It was the wrong call,’ he said. ‘You make mistakes in public life. That was a big one. I made it … and I’m responsible’.

No attempt to lay the blame off on the so-called ‘faceless men’. No attempt to say he was forced into it. Rudd was clear about it; he was the man at the top, he wanted to unify his party and preserve a piece of legislation in which he believed. He failed. He was wrong. His fault.

It’s what people have been waiting to hear from Rudd – or, in fact, from any politician. Honesty, accountability, integrity. And – if the audience reaction and the Twitter feed are anything to go by – it shocked everyone who heard it. Within minutes, messages of congratulation flooded in addressed to Rudd’s Twitter.

But, of course, overnight, the worm turned – the ‘worm’, in this case, being the media, the pundits, and the pollies.

Rudd had ‘breached cabinet confidentiality’, he’d ‘gone rogue’ – Sky News. Rudd ‘exposed the deep splits that are damaging this government’ – George Brandis on AM Agenda. NineMSN’s report on Rudd included a mention of the latest Newspoll as ‘more trouble for the government’ (apparently, Rudd’s powers include an ability to influence polls that have already concluded). The Herald-Sun focused on the fact that Rudd ‘did not specifically clear the Prime Minister’. Cabinet was ‘split’ – the Sydney Morning Herald (apparently trying to convince us that ‘normal’ Cabinet meetings feature lockstep thinking). And Crikey commented that Rudd ‘put the knife into Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan’.

The thesaurus was in demand this morning. It was ‘extraordinary’, ‘incredible’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘devastating’. Possibly the tamest word used to describe Rudd’s words was ‘entertaining’.

But what’s missing here?

The reporting is uniformly negative. Even when the articles start by commenting on the ‘frankness’ Rudd displayed, they quickly drop that and move on to the ‘juicier’ stuff.

We bitch and moan about how our politicians don’t answer questions. We lament that everything they say is spin and lies dressed up as concern for ‘working families’. Where oh where, we cry, can we find honesty?

We saw it last night. We saw a former Prime Minister make the choice to admit the mistake, take all the responsibility without making excuses, and refuse to allow anyone on that panel to spin his words into anything other than he meant. He didn’t accept Manne’s compliment, or attempt to show himself as somehow better than anyone else.

But he was better.

Does it make up for the catastrophic decision to shelve the ETS, an action that severely damaged the government in the eyes of the Australian people? No.

Does it make up for his many other mistakes, particularly the botched home insulation program? Absolutely not.

But then – and this is the crucial thing – Rudd didn’t ask us forget all that. He didn’t even ask us to excuse or forgive him.

Should he have said, ‘Sorry’? Maybe. But what he did do was show us a man who had learned a bitter lesson.

Oh, we all loved to call him ‘Kevin 747’ when he raced around the world apparently currying favour with other countries. We tsked that he was ‘Kevin 24/7’ when he worked his Department into the ground, forcing them to keep up with his own punishing schedule. And who could forget ‘Kevin O’Lemon’?

But what we saw last night was just Kevin Rudd, the sadder and wiser man.

The last Q and A questioner commented that sometimes positive results can flow from personal disasters, and asked Rudd if he’d learning anything from being ousted as Prime Minister. Rudd laughed it off, but I think his earlier answer was the real one.

Rudd acted with integrity and honesty last night. It’s what we said we wanted in our politicians.

We shouldn’t allow media spin and partisan punditry to distract us from that. And we should require all our politicians act the same way, all the time.

We have that ability. We should start exercising it.

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